How can I make myself more marketable as a programmer?
February 11, 2007 2:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm a programmer/web developer with 7 years experience. I'm looking for a new job, but I fear I don't look good on paper. How can I improve my marketability?

The short version:
How can I make best market myself as a programmer?

The long version:
I've been working as a programmer/web developer for the last 7 years for the same company. I enjoy what I do, and the pay is good, but the writing's on the wall and it's time to move on. The problem is - how to best go about it?
I believe I am good at what I do, but I'm not sure how to convince prospective employers of that. I wrote up a resume, but it seems a little... empty. Since I've only worked as a programmer for one company, the work experience section looks very short. I also have no formal education to speak of, so that section of my resume also falls flat. I do include links to sites I've done and information on projects completed, but with all the resumes companies receive, I'm not sure that my resume is interesting enough for employers to keep it around long enough to actually visit the links and evaluate my projects. Additionally, many of the projects I've worked on are not publicly viewable, or are no longer in use. Others projects were done to (somewhat ludicrous) client specifications, and on a tight deadline, so they're not as impressive as I would like.

Basically, I don't look good on paper, and I'm not sure how to fix that. So I'm looking for any and all advice about how to make myself more marketable. How can I improve my resume? How can I best present my portfolio? Is it reasonable to expect a potential employer to visit a portfolio if I put the URL in my resume? Does it make sense to create "demo" sites and programs just for showing employers? Are there certifications I could get that would help? Extra training? I don't have a lot of time for schooling right now, but weekend classes or short multi-week courses to beef up my skills and qualifications aren't out of the question. Any and all advice is welcome.

My *ideal* job would be a telecommuting or part-time position that allows me to travel, but I'm not super-picky. Just about anything in programming/development would do. I'd also prefer to get back to C++ or large-scale development work instead of more a more web-related job, but my C++ skills are more rusty and it's probably safer to play my strengths. I've considered contract work, but I signed a "no moonlighting"-type agreement with my employer when I hired on, so I'd have to quit first before establishing myself, which is risky.

Here's a quick summary of what I've got going for me:
  • 7 years of professional experience.
  • Expert proficiency at a variety of web-related technologies including ColdFusion, ASP.NET, JSP, SQL, Javascript (including AJAX), CSS (I know better than to use tables for everything!), and of course HTML/XHTML.
  • Moderate Java experience/expertise. I don't use it regularly, but I've developed several internal tools (database utilities, etc), and a couple applets in Java.
  • Good graphics design skills (although I'd prefer not to work as a graphics designer primarily). I've designed several good-looking sites in recent memory.
  • Rusty C++ experience. I used to use it all the time as a a hobbyist, but I haven't had much occasion to use it for my employer.
  • CompTIA A+ Certification... but that's really for repair/troubleshooting type work, not programming.
  • The ability to learn just about any programming language, tool, or technique in a weekend.
  • And if it helps at all, I'm nearly fluent in spoken Japanese, although reading/writing is still hard. My native language is English (American).
Now, here's what I'm working against:
  • No formal education. I was home schooled through high school, and I possess a GED. No college.
  • Poor economy in my area (Farmington Hills, MI, near Detroit).
  • No "team" experience. Almost all projects I've worked on were coded entirely be me and myself alone. The biggest team I've worked with was 4 people - a graphics designer, a database designer, a data-entry-type person, and myself as the coder. My current employer gave me the title of "Lead Developer", but in practice that just means I get to influence which projects the other coders work on, mentor them when necessary, and report on their progress to the boss. I have never worked with another programmer on the same project.
  • Can't do other IT-related work until I quit my current job.
That's my situation. MeFi hive mind, please help me!
posted by Vorteks to Work & Money (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestions:
  • Emphasis your mastery of web standards.
  • List any accomplishments.
  • Use action words like "automated build processes"
  • Use quantifiable details when possible such as "reduced costs by 5%".
  • Mention anything that was done on time or early, managers love that. "Completed project x two weeks ahead of schedule". Notice how I used action words in a lot of my examples. Be a man (or woman) of action and accomplishments, with quantifiable results.

posted by furtive at 2:38 PM on February 11, 2007

I'd say you're in a good spot for another job even without beefing up your resume. List successful projects on your resume, and the 7 years experience. That should be enough to get the employer to look at the resume.
posted by cschneid at 2:47 PM on February 11, 2007

You may want to consider using a skills based resume to play up your strengths.

I don't have enough experience in the industry to say much else, but I do think you should include the fact that you know Japanese. It might not be relevant, but I think it demonstrates versatility on your part, and may help set you apart from other candidates.
posted by benign at 2:53 PM on February 11, 2007

Take a look at some resume writing books/websites for other resume writing styles. Your particular history might not look great in a reverse chron education/experience format, but some of the other possible formats--especially ones that emphasize skills and portfolios--may show you off better.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:55 PM on February 11, 2007

Talk about the various projects you worked on for your employer. If there were a small number, talk about what you did during the course of those projects to improve them, preferably by some measurable, objective metric.

I read recently that it is a "candidate's market," which means you shouldn't have much trouble finding a jorb if you are at all skilled and have good samples. If you can't find something in the Detroit area, then consider moving. Ann Arbor might be a better location -- Google has an office there, for example.

Downplay your education on your resume by putting it last. Play up your experience. And remember, someone who will stay at a company for 7 years is very attractive to many employers; it costs a lot of money to constantly replace people.

Don't quit to contract. Instead, sign up with Aquent or another agency and let them pimp you out. That is fairly low risk because they will find the positions for you, and when they get you one, then you can quit your job.
posted by kindall at 3:00 PM on February 11, 2007

Here in Oklahoma, which is not exactly a software programming hot spot, you could find a job in a week with your skills. Just look at other resumes. If you feel your resume is lacking, simply describe what you did to gain your knowledge of "ColdFusion, ASP.NET, JSP, SQL, Javascript (including AJAX), CSS " Describe waht your ASP pages did, what was CSS used for? Why did you use JSP? stuff like that.
Definitely put your japanese on your resume!!
And no, you cannot expect people interested to follow links to web pages you have done. Some will, many wont.
posted by BillsR100 at 4:27 PM on February 11, 2007

The first, last and most important piece of advice I can give you is this:

Get thee out of Detroit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Heve you considered taking some certification exams? With your background, you should be able to pass the Coldfusion Developer exam pretty easily. If you brush up on your Java, you could pass the the Sun Certified Java Programmer exam, which would lead you into the Sun Certified Developer for Java Web Services exam (thus leveraging your JSP experience).
posted by tdismukes at 5:19 PM on February 11, 2007

As a hiring manager, let me say that seven years of experience at one company with (as you imply) strong progress in your salary is tremendously appealing.

Give yourself a chance on the market before you start to lose hope -- I bet you'll be suprised by how much interest you get. And the lack of a college degree is going to be a modest, but by no means severe, problem when you're looking for a technical role.

(THhis is not to say that you should not work on the optics and detail of your resume, of course -- a series of bullet points for particularly interesting projects in recent years might be helpful.)

And something important to remember is that it is never to late to go to college. Someone with your basic stability has what it takes to get a degree -- you can do it in 6 years of night school, part time, if you take classes in the summer as well.
posted by MattD at 5:27 PM on February 11, 2007

Oops, in my earlier comment I should have linked to the Sun Certified Web Component Developer exam. That's the one which tests your knowledge of JSPs and servlets, not the SCDWS exam.
posted by tdismukes at 5:51 PM on February 11, 2007

Thanks for the help everyone!

I am definitely willing to take certification exams, although I am curious how much of a difference others have found it to make? Might any hiring managers chime in as to how important certifications are on a resume?

Also, does anyone know where I can go for a good, inexpensive resume critique? I seem to remember one of the major job sites had a free service for this, but I can't find it now.
posted by Vorteks at 7:25 PM on February 11, 2007

Take classes at Harvard Extension School using the Distance Education option and get a citation in either Information Technology Management or Web Technologies and Applications (here).
posted by pwally at 8:12 PM on February 11, 2007


For the past few months I've been helping a friend of mine look for a gig as a web developer and have even asked an AskMe question dealing with his resume issues. He's very talented and bright, knows multiple programming language, has worked on all manner of projets, and has had two years on-the-job experience as a web developer and many more years of non-paid experience. But he doesn't even have his GED, holds no certifications, etc. Also, he got his first webdev gig through a friend. He did submit a resume but it was just about as unprofessional as you can possibly imagine. He ended the resume with something like "If I can do all this at the age of 20, imagine what I'll be able to do when I'm 25!" Needless to say, he knew very little about the job market, writing a resume, or any of the other ins and outs of employment.

So I helped him put together a new resume. We listed every dang project he'd ever worked on. Since I knew littlee about the tech side of things and neither of us knew anything about the expectations of his potential employers (a nightmare for me; I never do business/commercial writing without first knowing my audience). So we had no idea what to leave in and what to leave out. The finished project was three and a half pages long. We knew it needed to be cut but weren't sure what should stay and what should go. Also, I figured it contained other mistakes, but, again, didn't know what they were.

I started looking around for someone who knew the web development field who could critique the resume. I wanted the opinions of people who'd been through this process themselves three or four times and could tell all sorts of Dilbertian stories about the inner workings of the industry; real, grisled, pocket-protectored veterans. I put the resume up on google docs and requested critiques from a friend and two friends-of-friends who had the necessary backgrounds. None of them ever got back to me.

I checked with regarding their critiquing service. Here's what I learned. 1. It's a couple hundred bucks, which was really out of my range (My friend was dead broke. I was going to have to come up with the dough). 2. They claim to have people on staff with experience in web development and all things techie... 3. but there's no way to talk to the individuals who will be handling your particular resume until after you've paid your money... 4. so you don't know anything more specific about their backgrounds or knowledge until it's too late. 5. All along, I felt like they were trying to sell me packaging (you know, where they clean up the formatting and suggest that you re-word things) as opposed to actual knowledge of the workings of the industry.

So I didn't go the monster route. I decided that if I was going to hire someone for this, I was going to have to be able to talk directly to them and pump them for information. So I called a local guy who advertised himself as some sort of career counselor. His pitch was better than a televanglist's. I mean, you shoulda heard this guy; he was hypnotic. But, again, it was all about the packaging. I saw no clear evidence that he had the kind of experience and info I needed.

I prepared for plan C. I intended to post to mefi jobs offering twenty five bucks a head to webdev/geek types who could spend thirty or forty five minutes going over the resume. But before I did (I'm a world class procrastinator), my friend started sending in the unedited three-and-a-half page resume to potential employers in Atlanta. I cringed. I thought my crappy resume writing was going to doom him. But within a week, he had an offer making a very impressive five figure salary. I was blown away. It was nearly triple his previous salary. He's been working there exactly one week now.

So... maybe these employer people are used to seeing geek resumes that are, let's say, clearly not the work of poets or MBAs. Maybe all that stuff about proper formatting and action words and stuff only applies to us non-techie, human people. Maybe they really, really don't care about anything other than the point at which the rubber meets the road. Which is: can you program the stuff they need done the way they need it done? I'm starting to think maybe that's the case.
posted by Clay201 at 9:04 PM on February 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

(Wow, Clay, I was getting ready to offer to help you out, but now I'm thinking you should help punch up *my* resume...)
posted by Tubes at 10:15 PM on February 11, 2007

Thanks for your experience Clay. I've have been in a position to see the resumes submitted to my company as we've interviewed other developers, and I have noticed that an alarming number are 4 pages long. That surprise me, because I always thought "1-2 pages" was a hard rule. My current resume (the boring one) is 1 page, but I think I need to add to it. I read the AskMe question you linked to, and I like shownomercy's suggestion of adding a "project" section to the resume. That'd probably be a good way to add some more "meat".

I also note ph00dz comment -
Any idiot can put whatever they want on their resumes. The people who are the real deal put URL examples of stuff they've done.
Whether or not that's true is one thing I hoped to get answered in this thread, but either way it's probably worth a shot.
posted by Vorteks at 10:30 PM on February 11, 2007

Dunno whether getting out of town is an option or desireable. But that experience is gonna get you hired, just like MattD hints above, even in Detroit. (I'm a native, and keep up with things from the East Coast, and it's just sad what's going on...)

The ability of the web to drive down costs or add new revenue streams is what will attract the most interest in Michigan. Think of what you've done in those terms and highlight them in either your resume or cover letters.

It may be better to consider what kind of work you'd like to be doing. Big corps or small-biz? Nonprofits or web development agencies? Government, even?

I'd also poke around the CS departments at MSU and UM and find the job boards and "connectors" (tm Malcolm Gladwell) there.
posted by jouster at 10:54 PM on February 11, 2007

You might want to post your question over at the Joel On Software discussion boards. You should find plenty of knowledgable feedback there.
posted by tdismukes at 2:49 AM on February 12, 2007

Why do you say the writing is on the wall ?
Are you seeking a complete career change or want to shift the company ?

Or are you seeking to start your own venture.

Once you have your goals written down then half the battle is won.
posted by at 7:58 AM on February 12, 2007

It might also help to look in the right place. There are 2 web-standards focused job boards that I know of off the top of my head:

While most of the jobs posted there are traditional drive to the office type jobs (and there aren't many/any in your area), telecommuting jobs do pop up from time to time.

If you can write solid back-end code that doesn't break valid front-end markup, I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find something in today's market in spite of your lack of formal education.

You mention that you want to get into more large-scale development - there's plenty of that on the web, much more than there is in the desktop application world. With your skill set, you'd be crazy to stray too far from web development.

Finally, (IANAL, but) you might also want to look into exactly what your "no moonlighting"-type agreement says (it may be as simple as saying it can't interfere with your full-time job) and what your employer can actually do if you were to break that agreement. Depending on the employee protection laws where you live, they may not be able to do anything.
posted by SubFuze at 6:42 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks SubFuze. I knew about 37 Signal's board, but not about I'll check it out.

I agree that my skills and experience are more web-centric. It's just that I've always enjoyed lower-level programming more, for whatever reason. If I could get a job that let me exercise my C++ skills more often, I'd probably be happier. But it isn't really essential. I'd take a good web development job without hesitation.

The exact wording of my agreement with my employer is this:
I agree that, during my employment with the Company, I will not provide consulting services to or become an employee of, any other firm or person engaged in a business in any way competitive with the Company or involved in the design, development, marketing, sale, or distribution of any networking or software products, without first informing the Company of the existence of such proposed relationship and obtaining the prior written consent of my manager and the Human Resource Manager responsible for the organization in which I work.
Honestly I doubt my employer would take any action against me, regardless of their legal rights, but I feel I should abide by an agreement I signed. It doesn't seem terribly oppressive.

chrisranjana - by "writing on the wall", mostly I meant that the future of my company is uncertain, and eventually I will have to move on or face eventual unemployment - although it may be several years down the road. Also, I believe I have already advanced as much as I can in my company. There are unlikely to be any new technologies to learn or new responsibilities in the future, so I must move on in order to progress my skills and career,
posted by Vorteks at 7:35 PM on February 13, 2007

I work as a C++ developer on large scale systems and do a lot of interviewing.

If you're really interested in doing C++ work I'd find an open source project to attach yourself to (assuming that's allowed by your non-compete). Since you don't have any real world experience with C++ it'd be a great way to showcase your skills.

Working on an open source project would show you what it's like to work with a team of programmers. Trust me, it's a completely different ballgame. To me the lack of team development experience is more troubling than not knowing the idiosyncrasies of a programming language.

A couple of points to keep in mind:
- C++ has a pretty steep learning curve. It's easy to learn the basics but the real art takes a long time to master.
- Working on a team of developers is difficult. Especially if you've been a lone wolf for seven years. I'm guessing you're used to doing things your own way.
- As ridiculous as it is a lot of large scale developers look down on web programming.
- Are you willing to take on a junior role? Someone with seven years experience is, typically, a senior or lead developer.
posted by srburns at 7:06 AM on February 14, 2007

Srburns, that is very valuable feedback. I suspected that my lack of team experience was going to hurt me.

Yes, I would be willing to take a junior role, as long as it paid sufficiently. I realize that in order to change directions in my programming career, I may have to take a pay cut, but I can only fall so far (don't want to move back in with my parents!). I don't mind being the "newbie" though. I honestly feel I could learn a lot in that role.

I'd be interested in joining an open source project. Any advice on how to get started? I assume I can't just start writing whatever modules I want and upload them to the source repository. Are there any tutorials or "getting started" guides for open source participation?
posted by Vorteks at 10:42 AM on February 14, 2007

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